If John Larkin, Northern Ireland's attorney general, has his
way, crimes perpetrated before the end of the country's three-decade conflict
between mainly Catholic Irish nationalists and Protestant loyalists will no
longer be prosecuted. That conflict, better known as the Troubles, left 3,500 people dead and ended in 1998 with the
Good Friday agreements. But 15 years after the conflict's end, over 3,000
killings remain unsolved and unprosecuted. In short, Larkin is proposing to the
close the book on the darkest chapter of Northern Ireland's history.
On the heels of Larkin's announcement Wednesday to end pre-Good Friday
prosecutions, the attorney general has come under a hailstorm of criticism. (Notably, the announcement came as former U.S. envoy to Northern Ireland Richard Haass visited
Belfast for his own reconciliation project.)
"Murder is murder, is murder. It has no sell-by date," said Jim
Alluster, leader of the Traditional Unionist Voice party; Patrick Corrigan, a
representative from Amnesty International, called the plan "an utter
betrayal of victims' fundamental right to access justice."
If Larkin's plan is adopted, it could mean an end to
prosecutions in such famous incidents as 1972's Bloody Sunday killings, the
massacre of 13 Irish protesters by British soldiers; the alleged kidnapping and murder
of Jean McConville, a mother of 10, at the hands of the Irish Republican Army later
that year; the 1976
Kingsmills massacre, where 11 Protestant workers were gunned down by republican
paramilitary members; and the unsolved murders of hundreds of "Disappeared," as
those who were taken by the IRA and never heard from again are known.
result, Larkin's proposal has been roundly criticized as a de facto amnesty
law. But that's only half true. According to Larkin and others involved in
building pre-Good Friday cases, there are hardly any prosecutions to speak of, and there
probably aren't going to be many more.
That reality raises a painful question for the people of
Northern Ireland. Thousands of victims from the Troubles will likely never see
justice, and Larkin's proposal is a surprisingly frank acknowledgement of that
reality. But is that a reality the country is prepared to live with?
"More than 15 years have passed since the Belfast Agreement,
there have been very few prosecutions, and every competent criminal lawyer will
tell you the prospects of conviction diminish, perhaps exponentially, with each
passing year," Larkin told the BBC.
"It strikes me that the time has come to think about putting a line, set at
Good Friday 1998, with respect to prosecutions, inquests and other inquiries."
Larkin's proposal has coincided with a spate of revelations
about state-backed violence during the Troubles. On Thursday, the BBC aired interviews with former
British soldiers who claim that unarmed civilians were killed as part of their
work "hunting down" IRA members. A specialized unit based in Belfast during the
1970s, the soldiers' mission was to "to draw out the IRA and to minimize
their activities," one ex-soldier explained. "If they needed shooting, they'd
be shot." Just last month, a new investigation was opened in the case the
Keady pub bombing, in which security forces allegedly colluded with loyalist
paramilitaries to carry out an attack that left two dead . It's estimated that 11 percent of
the deaths under review are the responsibility of the state.
Questions have been raised by the British
government as well as independent human rights organizations about the
effectiveness of the institutions responsible for finding out what happened in
these myriad unsolved cases. Earlier this year, the Historical Enquiries Team,
a special unit of the Police Service of Northern Ireland charged by the British
government with investigating crimes committed during the Troubles, was accused
of mishandling murder cases involving the military, winning it a vote of no
confidence from Northern Ireland's Police Board. It also comes on the heels of
an Amnesty International report that
claimed, "The lack of political will to address the past remains the
greatest obstacle" for coming to terms with the country's violent past.
In addition to the inherent difficulty in investigating and
prosecuting decades-old crimes, efforts to bring the Troubles to an end have
thrown up a series of obstacles to successfully carrying out prosecutions. As part
of a disarmament treaty in 1997, thousands of weapons that could have served as
crucial forensic evidence were destroyed. In 1999, new
legislation exempted from use in prosecution information that brought about the recovery of the bodies of the "Disappeared." And even if a case could be
cobbled together, the Sentencing Act 1998 capped time served at two years for
crimes committed as part of the Troubles.
Given these difficulties, Larkin is arguing that justice
could be better served by opening state records to the public, so the
historical record can be set straight. "What I am saying is take the
lawyers out of it," Larkin
told the Belfast Telegraph. "The
people who should be getting history right are historians, so in terms of
recent history, the people who are making the greatest contribution are often
Though Larkin's proposed halt to pre-1998 investigations was
met with a chorus of criticism, Adrian Guelke, a professor of politics at
Queens College in Belfast, claims the public desire for recriminations has been
overstated and that Larkin's plan offers a way to move beyond entrenched
grievances. "We should recognize that the prosecutions aren't going to be a way
forward," Guelke said in a phone interview with Foreign Policy. "Yes, [Larkin] was trying to find a
way for people to find out the truth about the past, but at the same time, he
wanted to find a way to prevent people's false expectations [for successful
prosecutions] from being a constant problem." The false promise of a
prosecution that will never occur, Larkin seems to be arguing, is a unique form
of cruelty, one that refuses to acknowledge the reality that the vast majority
of murders will probably never be prosecuted -- regardless of the amnesty
The power to carry out Larkin's proposal lies with elected
politicians, not the appointed attorney general, and if the immediate reaction
is any indication, its chances of becoming law are slim in the Northern Ireland
Assembly. Meanwhile, British Prime Minister David Cameron hedged on the
prospect of halting prosecutions. "I think it's rather dangerous to think
that you can put some sort of block on that," he said. "But of course we are
all interested in ways in which people can reconcile and come to terms with the
bloody past, so that they can build a viable future and a shared future for
Northern Ireland." As Paddy Woodworth, a journalist for the Irish Times
told Foreign Policy, the suggestion has been attacked from all sides, the
greatest difference being that "people have varied in the ardor and the
fervor with which they have rejected it."
Still, there have been a few glimmers of support that
recognize that this proposal, or one like it, might help the country heal its
bloody past. An editorial in the Irish
Times said, that while Larkin has endured a harsh backlash, "at the
very least he has catapulted a never-ending grim debate that takes place mostly
in the background to the forefront of political and community discourse." Northern
Ireland has never had the kind of reconciliation with its past that South
Africa did (though Desmond Tutu did made a less ambitious attempt on the BBC in 2006), but
it has tracked a slow path away from the cyclical, vengeful recriminations that
marked the Troubles.
Larkin's apparently doomed plan might just be
one more step.